DARPA Faces Down Burgeoning Gene Editing Universe

DARPA has awarded seven contracts to seven teams to research the potential hazards of gene editing and countermeasures if those ever became reality. Infographic courtesy of DARPA.

DARPA wants to mitigate the risks inherent in the global spread of gene editing and is willing to pay $65 million for solutions over the next four years.

The agency announced Wednesday seven awards to seven teams—mostly academic— that will examine a myriad of potential conclusions in the realm of gene editing, from keeping the practice safe as it proliferates around the planet, to figuring out how to further use it for good intentions.

The Safe Genes program, as it is called, has a specific national security tie in that gene editing can be used to protect troops against diseases, mitigate the threat of offensive or even irresponsible use of biological warfare, and develop enhanced capabilities like synthetic and novel materials.

“The steep drop in the costs of genomic sequencing and gene editing toolkits, along with the increasing accessibility of this technology, translates into greater opportunity to experiment with genetic modifications,” a DARPA spokesperson wrote in an email to Air Force Magazine. “This convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing—both positive and negative—could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community.”

Partly inspiring Safe Gene was the field of gene drives, or edited genes introduced into a population and expected to proliferate into future generations within that population, ensuring the edits pass down. There are natural examples of gene drives and scientists want to emulate these processes. To that extent, the teams involved will have to not only perpetuate gene drive technology but also attempt to counter the introduction of such drives into friendly populations.

As the teams move forward in their discovery, they will consult potential stakeholders of gene editing, like government actors who may have concerns or future designs on regulations specific to gene editing. More specifically, DARPA and the teams will investigate legal, ethical, environmental, dual-use, and responsible innovation issues as the program moves forward.

“One aspect of Safe Genes that I’m most proud of is that we’re involving potential stakeholders from the beginning, many of whom are already considering gene editing technologies as options for responding to different health and environmental challenges but who have questions about how solutions involving gene editors would actually work,” said Renee Wegrzyn, who’s managing the project, in DARPA’s release. “DARPA sees their involvement in the Safe Genes program as invaluable for developing a model in which consideration of societal impact isn’t an afterthought, but instead a foundation on which science advances.”

Each team will focus in on one or more of three specific objectives:

  • Build constructs—guidelines—that offer spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors
  • Build drug-based countermeasures to provide treatment that may limit genomes editing or at least protect genome integrity when necessary
  • Build a way to get rid of engineered genes from entire systems, restoring those systems to their baseline genetic states